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Witherscape - "The Northern Sanctuary" (CD)

Witherscape - "The Northern Sanctuary" CD cover image

"The Northern Sanctuary" track listing:

1. Wake Of Infinity (04:38)
2. In The Eyes Of Idols (03:58)
3. Rapture Ballet (04:25)
4. The Examiner (05:03)
5. Marionette (04:37)
6. Divinity (03:02)
7. God Of Ruin (05:32)
8. The Northern Sanctuary (13:44)
9. Vila I Frid (01:54)

Reviewed by on August 10, 2016

"'The Northern Sanctuary' is a rare sequel that's every bit as good as the original, and without being a total carbon copy."

Back in 2013, Dan Swano came out of his musical exile (staying firmly on the producing side rather than the creation side for years) and blew us all away with Witherscape's unexpectedly awesome debut “The Inheritance.” While I had originally given “The Inheritance” a 4/5 review (which is “excellent” in our rating system), the album more than just grew on me over time, it sort of became an obsession. Every listen it became better, with more and more of the overall story coming into focus. There's probably not a single day that goes by when I don't play at least one song off the album at some point.

Needless to say, there was a lot of anticipation and build-up on the trek to releasing sophomore output “The Northern Sanctuary.” While typically that would lead to overly high expectations, I am very pleased to report that Witherscape's second full-length offering is a perfect example of a band releasing a satisfying follow-up record. It sounds enough like the previous album to keep you hooked and pull in the fans of the previous release, but also does enough different to warrant being its own album. The sound has changed, but not radically enough to be off-putting.

“The Northern Sanctuary” hits all the right notes from beginning to end – quite literally with that creepy starting piano entry before all the heaviness arrives shortly thereafter, letting everyone know the album was created by mixing two different worlds.

Dan Swano has spoken about how the harsh vocals basically put him out of commission for long periods during recording as it overtakes his body and ruins his throat, going so far as to say this album “nearly put him in the grave.” Hearing the first screams on “Wake Of Infinity” through the last on the title track, I can believe it. He's no slouch on the cleaner vocals either though, which have a throaty and hard edge to them even when going melodic over extreme.

On the story front, we're back to the same haunted house from the first album, but this time things go even worse as a gateway to the evil entity's realm is fully opened and hell spills out onto Earth. While exploring that idea, the disc has a perfect balance of variation and familiarity, with slower songs like “The Examiner” and “God Of Ruin” juxtaposed against more up-tempo, blood-pumping tracks like “Wake Of Infinity” and “Divinity.”

An innovative and interesting mixing of the harsh and smooth is what can be expected as you journey across the story. Frankly, if you miss Opeth actually being a metal band that also used smooth and soft parts, then “The Northern Sanctuary” is the album you want more than “Sorceress.” Those proggy keyboards and filtered vocals on “God Of Ruin” in particular feel like the best of newer Opeth, but with a more interesting and less derivative sound.

As with the previous EP and debut album, there's plenty of classic metal and decades-gone hard rock influence as well. If you dig Swano's other softer projects like Nightingale, there's much to love here, with the added bonus of the death metal focus. Be prepared for the unexpected though: “Marionette” in particularly is so completely outside what you might expect from the idea of harsh-meets-soft that I was completely taken aback on the first listen, and now its one of my favorite tracks on the album.

The bottom line is that “The Northern Sanctuary” is a rare sequel that's every bit as good as the original, and without being a total carbon copy. Hats off to Ragnar and Dan for maintaining the same level of quality and even upping the ante – not many bands can do that.

Highs: Everything: great variation without letting go of the base sound, some totally unexpected sound experiments that work very well, and Swano's killer harsh vocals.

Lows: Not a one. This album is killer from beginning to end.

Bottom line: Witherscape meets or even exceeds what was done before on this stellar sophomore album.

Rated 5 out of 5 skulls
5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)